Denis Peirce: From deck hand to captain: One man’s passion turned into a career of fishing in Alaska |

Denis Peirce: From deck hand to captain: One man’s passion turned into a career of fishing in Alaska

Denis Peirce
Justin Leonard (left) has been working for Leslie Parmington (middle), owner Puffin Charters and captain of the "Tenacious," in Alaska for the past two years. On the last trip Leonard brough his friend Justin Dooley (right) of Grass Valley to help.
Photo by Denis Peirce


Justin Leonard guides our area for trout, kokanee and salmon when he is not in Alaska. You can follow him through Facebook by searching for “Out Cast Guide Service.”

If you were offered a job that started at 5 a.m. and ended after 7 p.m. seven days a week for three straight months, would you take a second look?

If it required you be outdoors, frequently cold and damp, and you would be expected to stay as late as necessary to clean up and set up for tomorrow, after everyone else had gone home, would you take it?

If the job was deckhand on a fishing charter boat based in Seward Alaska and your name was Justin Leonard you might think you had died and gone to heaven.

Justin is one of those young men, with a passion for the outdoors, that is making a career fishing. After high school he enrolled in the trade program at Yuba College as well as pursuing a fishing guide’s license.

At Yuba College he met welding instructor Dan Turner. They both enjoyed fishing and one day Justin took Dan and his son Jake fishing on the Feather River. Jake, it turns out, is a seasonal charter captain in Alaska. He recognized the fishing bug when he saw it.

I met Justin a year ago when I fished a day with Grant Mitchell on the Feather River during the salmon season. Justin was filling in as deckhand.

The Afterbay Hole on the Feather, when the salmon are in, is very crowded. The captain is full time engaged operating the boat and jockeying for position to make “the drift” through the fish holding run.

All hands on deck

It is the deckhand who is responsible for setting up the anglers to hook their fish and get it in the boat. When I would reel up and the bait was off the hook, Justin was over my shoulder ready to clip on some fresh roe and get me back in the water. Every time I realized something needed to be done, Justin was a step ahead of me and had me back fishing.

In a manner of thinking, the deckhand is really doing the fishing, the anglers are there to set the hook and reel the fish in.

Back to the day in 2016 on the Feather River with Captain Jake from Alaska; a work ethic and an understanding of the job at hand can be a hard combination to find. Finding it in a young person is even more uncommon.

What Justin did not realize was that day on the river was really an audition. It led to Justin arriving in Seward, Alaska in May of 2017 to work for “Puffin Charters,” a fishing company with a fleet of charter boats. Puffin Charters quickly realized what they had and it was not long before Justin was the head deckhand on his boat.

Within a charter company as well as across the port, the competition to catch more and bigger fish is intense. Everyone is checking out the competition at the end of the day. Your status is wrapped up in what gets taken to the fish processor.

The captain is full time in the wheel house, it is the deckhands who choose what to fish with and how to set the lines. The deckhand is responsible for getting that large thrashing fish from the water onto the deck, a skill that takes some practice.

Without a good deckhand it can be just a boat ride. If you will accept the premise that the guide/deckhand is doing the fishing and we are just setting the hook and pulling in the fish, then Justin catches more fish in a summer than most of us do in a lifetime.

Following your dreams

This season, 2018, Justin was invited back. He was asked if he knew another good hand and he brought up his friend Justin Dooley to work with him. He was moved up to head deckhand on the boat operated by the owner of the company, Leslie Parmington.

This past winter Justin passed the course of study and received his captain’s license. Next summer he will be captain of his own boat for Puffin Charters.

I have heard it often said it’s a “Who you know world.” I would modify that phrase to it’s “Who knows you” that’s important. When you have the passion for something and a work ethic, it does get noticed.

To me the lesson is “Follow your passion, work hard and be persistent” and good things will come your way.

Denis Peirce writes a fishing column for The Union’s Outdoors section and is host of “The KNCO Fishing & Outdoor Report,” which airs 6-7 p.m. Fridays and 5-6 a.m. Saturdays on 830-AM radio. Contact him via his website at

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